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Big, healthy polar bear at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Big, healthy polar bear at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

by George Williams

When Mary Nicolini booked her trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge two years ago, she was hoping to see polar bears in the wild at ground level, kayak with beluga whales, and maybe see one wolf.

She got more than she bargained for.

The 58-year-old Senior Account Specialist with global insurance broker AON encountered a huge male polar bear at close range, a few smaller polar bears, a mother polar bear with nursing cubs, black bears around the lodge daily, and a full pack of wolves with pups.

“Wow! I was just hoping to see ‘a wolf’ in the wild,” said Mary. “And then one of them literally just walked right up to us when we were in the Tundra Rhino. The guides counted 22 wolves in total. And there were five pups. Super cute!

“It was a lot of fun just observing the wolves. The pack dynamics are fascinating. They are so subtle with their cues. I don’t know what they were saying, but before we knew it, we were circled, just like the guides said we would be. However, we always felt safe.”

Mary was able to get numerous photos of the wolf pack, and one of them was selected to appear in a newsletter produced by Wildlife SOS, one of the wildlife charities she supports.

Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge featured in Wildlife SOS newsletter. Mary Nicolini photo.

Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge featured in Wildlife SOS newsletter. Mary Nicolini photo.

“I’m not a professional photographer but I love taking photos,” said Mary. “I don’t use a fancy camera. I have a Panasonic Lumix FZ1000. It’s a good camera and I get some great photos with it. I can’t be bothered changing lenses or settings. And in the case of the big polar bear, you wouldn’t have been able to get photos with a zoom lens. He was too close.”

Before leaving Churchill for Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, Mary and her group were able to kayak with beluga whales in the Churchill River, which is part of the itinerary on the Arctic Discovery.

“Kayaking with the belugas was phenomenal,” said Mary. “They’re so friendly and curious. They were all around us. We were able to see the belugas three times. On a boat ride to visit the Prince of Wales Fort, in the kayaks, and in a Zodiac with just the Churchill Wild group members. I posted a few photos and videos on my Instagram profile.

Kayaking with belugas in Churchill. Mary's group bonded instantly.

Kayaking with belugas in Churchill. Mary’s group bonded instantly.

“There were 10 in our group and we all clicked and bonded from day one in Winnipeg. There was a family from Singapore, a couple from Madrid, a gal from Australia and three of us from the US. It was a good mix. We were the best of friends by the end of the trip.”

Mary’s trip wasn’t without hiccups, including a weather delay, which is not uncommon when travelling in the north. Heavy fog forced the pilot to turn back on Mary’s original scheduled flight from Churchill to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and they couldn’t get to the lodge until the next day.

“The fog was so thick, we didn’t even realize the pilot had turned the plane around to go back to Churchill,” said Mary. “We were disappointed, but at the same time, safety is far more important. We arrived at the lodge early the next morning.”

And despite missing a day of her stay at Nanuk, the wildlife didn’t disappoint, even in the rain.

“Everyone went out the morning it rained,” said Mary. “The weather was predicted to clear by noon, and you could see the skies clearing over Hudson Bay. The guides provided us with rain gear, boots and coffee/hot chocolate. Even in the rain we saw polar bears and wolves.

“The rain doesn’t stop wildlife from doing their thing, if anything, the cooler weather makes the wildlife more active. We saw a lot of black bears, sandhill cranes and bald eagles too. I’m a big birder, so that was exciting for me. And sure enough, by afternoon it was beautiful and sunny again.”

Mary and her group saw a young polar bear from about one hundred yards away, black bears visited the lodge daily, and she had a memorable experience with a mother and two cubs before the close encounter with the big polar bear on the final day of their trip.

Polar bear mom and cubs enjoying the sunshine on the beach at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Mom and cubs enjoying the sunshine on the beach at Nanuk. Mary Nicolini photo.

“We stayed 200 yards back from the mother and cubs,” said Mary. “The guides were watching the mother bear to see how she would react, whether defensive or protective. We didn’t want to disturb them. She knew we were there. She’d probably caught our scent long before we even saw her, but she didn’t seem concerned with us at all.

“The sun was going down and we were all sitting on a sandbank. The mother and cubs were resting and enjoying the sun. The mother bear then started nursing the cubs, which was incredible to witness. The guide said she was really comfortable with our presence to start nursing while we were there.”

At one point, Mary put her camera down and decided to just enjoy the moment.

“When you’re watching wildlife through the viewfinder, you’re missing an incredible opportunity to observe and feel a moment that you’ll most likely never experience again in your lifetime,” said Mary. “Mama bear was looking out over Hudson Bay, the cubs napping and nursing, rolling on their backs with their little legs up in the air. We were all taking in this lovely setting. It was a magical moment.”

Mary’s group was scheduled to leave the lodge the next morning for Churchill, and normally on a travel day you don’t go on excursions, but this day was different.

“The lodge manager (Graham Easterby) said, ‘Okay, you folks are so awesome, the guides want to take you out again. Two polar bears were spotted on the shoreline. Your flights have been pushed back, but you’ll have limited time,'” said Mary. “We were so thrilled and appreciative to have one more opportunity to see a polar bear. Our guide, Kevin (Brightnose) was amazing. I swear he knows what those bears are thinking.”

The bear that would eventually get close to Mary’s group was walking in the opposite direction of the bears they had previously seen. The guides said if the group walked to the end of the runway towards the shoreline, there was a good chance the group would intersect with him.

“We did our stealth single file walk and all of a sudden the bear saw us and started walking towards us,” said Mary. “And he just kept getting closer and closer. The distance he covered in that brief amount of time was mind blowing. When we first saw him, he was just a speck on the shoreline, and now he’s right in front of us. It was amazing, and a bit scary at the same time, to have a 1,500-pound polar bear checking you out. Incredible!

“With my zoom I was able to get some shots, but at one point, he was so close I didn’t need it. He was massive! I think he was as tall as me just at his shoulders. And that all happened in under an hour. You can spend hours trying to find the polar bears, so to find a bear and get that close, in that timeframe, was so lucky. The planets aligned for us. We all left Nanuk on cloud nine and couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to have that encounter on our last day.”

Massive polar bear checking out guests at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Massive polar bear checking out Mary and her group at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Mary has been on 15-20 wildlife trips around the world. She’s been to Africa and Iceland, from swimming with whales in Tonga to observing brown bears feeding on salmon in Alaska and travelling to Antarctica to see penguins and their chicks.

“I love traveling and I love wildlife,” said Mary. “I’m happiest in nature and being outside. I don’t know where my passion for wildlife came from but it’s strong. I feel like there’s a bit of a rush right now to see these incredible places as well as the wildlife being affected by climate change.

“Thankfully, every polar bear we saw at Nanuk was super healthy. The big boy must have eaten a lot of seals during winter/spring. The mother and cubs were very round too. They all looked well fed, and the guides were saying she was a good mother, because those were not cubs of the year. They were yearlings. The mortality rate is high for polar bear cubs, so to have two healthy cubs at that age was something special.”

Most of the trips Mary has been on involve travelling as part of a group and she always does her homework when planning a trip.

“I’m not just winging it by myself,” said Mary. “I don’t want to waste time if I’m going on a trip. I work full time so I have limited vacation time. I don’t have a month to throw on a backpack and go. I do my research. I want to go with a reputable company that has everything organized for you.”

Mary discovered Churchill Wild after seeing a social media post from National Geographic filmmaker Bertie Gregory, who captured much of his polar bear and wolf footage for the series Wildlife: The Big Freeze at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary met Bertie in Tofino, BC when he was still in high school.

Shortly after seeing Bertie’s post, Mary met Churchill Wild guide Steve Schellenberg, who was her guide on a trip to Antarctica.

“I thought that was quite the coincidence,” said Mary. “I’d just seen Bertie’s photos on Instagram and then I met Steve. He said that if we wanted to see polar bears at ground level, this was the way to do it. It was more expensive than other options, but I thought, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.

“Churchill Wild had a chart on their website that showed what wildlife you were most likely to see and the possibility of northern lights for each trip they offered. The Arctic Discovery at Nanuk included the beluga whale kayaking in Churchill, so we booked it.

“I’m glad I chose Nanuk. I loved the Boreal forest, the ponds, the green grass, and the wildflowers. I would love to go during fall when the leaves have turned. It was really beautiful, and it was so special the wolves chose to spend so much time with us. It was very spiritual for me, to be accepted by them in their world, even if it was only for a brief moment in time.”

Wolf pup at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Wolf pup at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

The Arctic Discovery also included a special dinner at Doug and Helen Webber’s home in Churchill. Doug and Helen are the parents of Churchill Wild co-owner and founder Jeanne Reimer.

“They had us over for dinner at their home in Churchill and gave us all one of their Blueberries & Polar Bears cookbooks,” said Mary. “Nicole, Allison, and Jen were doing the cooking and I’m quite sure they used the recipes from the cookbooks. Everything was amazing at the dinner. And of course, I got some Dymond Lake Seasoning.

“The food and customer service were excellent at Nanuk. Even with so many guest’s dietary restrictions, they did it all with a smile and everybody was so friendly. The guides and managers would join us for meals, so we had an opportunity to get to know everyone. And as you’re eating meals, it’s not uncommon to see wolves or the resident black bear meandering around the lodge.

“I could easily hang out on the viewing tower all day as well as stargaze at night. Not to mention the view when you open your door in the morning. Spectacular!”

Guest viewing the black bear mascot at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from the viewing tower. Mary Nicolini photo.

Black bear mascot at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

“I went into the trip with certain expectations, based on the photos we saw on the Churchill Wild website,” said Mary. “The first couple of days, the wolves were very close to us, but I thought we’d be closer to the polar bears (not realizing that some of the bears had never seen humans before). However, all that changed on the last day when we had the close encounter with the large male bear.”

Mary is an avid hiker, and black bears are a common sight on her local treks, but seeing polar bears in the wild presented a whole new scenario for her.

“We spend quite a bit of time hiking in the mountains at home and there’s a lot of black bears that you can easily shoo-away,” said Mary. “And the brown bears we saw in Alaska were big, but nothing compared to the polars bears we saw at Nanuk. Apex predator!

Polar bear in the willows. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

Polar bear in the willows. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Mary Nicolini photo.

“The guides are very thorough with their explanation of why it’s important to do exactly what they tell you to do. If they say go now, that doesn’t mean take two photos and go, it means go now. You walk in a single file line and depending how close the bear gets, you fan out to look bigger, as we did when the big bear got close.

“And that’s when I got the photo of him in the willows. This guy was coming in hot. I was shaking and excited at the same time. Is this really happening? We were all speechless.

“It’s pretty mind blowing what you’ve experienced and it’s hard for people at home to relate. Photos are great, but to be there in person with the wolves and polar bears is life changing. How could you ever explain that feeling?”

And there was one final thrill. Mary got to be the “co-pilot” in the front seat on her flight back from Nanuk to Churchill.

“I was super excited,” said Mary. “And Jason (the pilot) took us over an area they call Polar Bear Alley, where we saw 22 polar bears. He said that was a record for him.”

Mary Nicolini Co-Pilot! Record 22 polar bears spotted on the way to Churchill!

Mary Nicolini (left) Co-Pilot! Record 22 polar bears spotted on the way to Churchill!

Was it all worth it?

“The trip far exceeded my expectations,” said Mary. “I would highly recommend Churchill Wild to anybody interested in going to see polar bears. It’s expensive, but worth every penny. It was a trip of a lifetime and the time went by too quickly.

“Seeing a polar bear in the wild is great anywhere, and we did see them in Churchill. However, it felt more wild and authentic at Nanuk.

“It’s like heaven on earth.”

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